Does Libya set a precedent? If a revolt breaks out again in Iran, and the regime cracks down with brutal force, will the United States support a Libya-style response? The New York Times, in its coverage of Libya, is already talking about imposing a no-fly zone against Syria. Is there an “Obama Doctrine” emerging?
It looks like it. And, unfortunately, it seems focused on the idea of humanitarian interventionism, with some add-ons and codicils, that make it broader than that. For instance, in his speech, President Obama spoke of “challenges that threaten our common humanity” as motivation for US intervention abroad, but then added that such interventions could occur in “maintaining the flow of commerce,” which sounds suspiciously like a declaration that the United States will go to war to protect the flow of oil.
Here is the relevant except from Obama’s address to the nation:
“There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security—responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us. They’re problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.”
I am not sure if that is an Obama “doctrine” or not, but it’s clear that the president is willing to use military force in situations that have nothing to do with national security and a lot to do with “values.” But one man’s values are another man’s imperialism, as we learned in Iraq in 2003.
Obama went on to declare that he’d be reluctant to act unilaterally, saying that he’d seek “to mobilize the international community for collective action.” To unilateralists on the right, such as John McCain, that’s namby-pamby talk. But Obama also said:
“I’ve made it clear that I will never hesitate to use our military swiftly, decisively, and unilaterally when necessary to defend our people, our homeland, our allies and our core interests.”
Core interests? That’s a loaded phrase. Like “values,” “core interests” can mean anything to anyone. And combining “values” and “core interests,” it appears that Obama is ready to use US military force anytime, anywhere, for any reason that he—without Congressional approval or UN support—deems legitimate.
During the course of the “War on Terror,” now a decade old, there has been a constant barrage of efforts to disparage those who called Iraq, or Afghanistan, a “war for oil.” With Libya, too, it’s easy to ridicule critics of the war in Libya as too quick to claim that the attack on Muammar Qaddafi is, as well, a war for oil. The latest to do so is Juan Cole, in his tendentious “Open Letter to the Left on Libya,” in which he says: “Another argument is that the no-fly zone (and the no-drive zone) aimed at overthrowing Qaddafi not to protect his people from him but to open the way for US, British and French dominance of Libya’s oil wealth. This argument is bizarre.”
Yes, it’s bizarre if one argues that there is a one-to-one relationship between the attack on Libya and some conspiratorial desire to seize control of Libya’s oil reserves and production facilities. But it’s not bizarre at all to argue that what animates nearly the entirety of American policy toward the region from Algeria to Iran is concern about oil and natural gas. That’s been the driving force behind the creation of the Rapid Deployment Force by President Carter, the establishment of Centcom by President Reagan, the invasion of Kuwait by President Bush I and America’s arming of Saudi Arabia and the other members of the so-called Gulf Cooperation Council. It’s why Obama muses about “maintaining the flow of commerce” by military means. And only fools believe that President George W. Bush would have invaded Iraq and threatened to attack Iran had those two countries been located in central Africa.
Which brings us to Iran. The nuclear talks with Iran have stalemated, and the Green Movement’s rebellion since 2009 has been shut down. So far, the Arab revolt hasn’t infected its Persian cousins, although leaders of the anti-Ahmadinejad movement have expressed sympathy and support for it. But, as has been shown by Tunisia, Egypt and Libya—and across the Arab world—there’s no predicting when and where a rebellion might erupt, or re-erupt. I don’t have any doubt that if the anti-Ahmadinejad forces rise up again, and perhaps take control of a city like Shiraz, or if Iranian oil workers strike and take control of a southern oil city such as Ahwaz, that the regime would crack down brutally. And then what?